Lights Out: Why 13% of the world is still living in darkness, but shouldn't.
Updated: Sep 23, 2019
I like heist movies. You know the kind, a group of intrepid thieves put together an incredibly convoluted plan to steal something from someone. The plan always has multiple moving pieces and a thousand things that can go wrong. I especially like the 2001 remake of Ocean's Eleven with George Clooney and Brad Pitt. In it, Basher—their explosions expert—is trying to figure out how to make all the lights go out in Las Vegas all at once. To do that he needs something called "a pinch." This is why:
"… a pinch creates a similar electromagnetic pulse, but without the fuss of mass destruction and death. So instead of Hiroshima, you'd be getting the seventeenth century."
Basher Tarr, demolitions expert — Ocean's Eleven
So by Basher's standard about 13 percent of the world is still living in the seventeenth century (World Bank). Thirteen percent doesn't sound like all that much, right? It makes it sound like we're on the right path. Well, maybe.
It also means that one person in eight doesn't have access to electricity, and the number gets much worse if we start looking at the reliable supply of electricity,
or we look only at rural areas,
or if we focus on Africa.
I had an interesting conversation about innovation in electricity generation with Mirjam Sick, Vice President for Innovation at Andritz Hydro (link). It was interesting for a couple of reasons: one, if you want to make a real impact on the world, electricity is where you need to be. The second reason is that "hydro-power has been around for an age–and–a–half," I hear you say, so any innovation there is going to be gradual isn't it? Baby steps?
How about a hydro-turbine that you can hump on your back, drop into a river, and generate power all day long? (Granted, you'd have to hump it back at night lest the neighbors steal it, but still).
How about pairing hydro-generation with artificial intelligence, keeping those turbines running at peak efficiency for longer. Not to put too fine a point on it, but every day a turbine doesn't go down saves us four hundred years of darkness. This means more sensors relaying more data to be processed in real time. That is way too much data for a human intelligence alone.
How about portions of Australia generating close to 100% of their power from renewables? Does that get your attention? According to Donald Trump, if you use wind or solar to generate electricity then you're out of luck at night or when the wind dies down. (I know, I know, what Trump doesn't understand about electricity could fill books. Come to think of it, it does fill books.) But here's the thing, you can use solar and wind energy to pump water up the hill and store it there, ready to generate clean power from hydro at a moment's notice. You pump the water up the hill during the day when fewer people are actually using electricity and energy is cheap. Then, when the time comes for ovens and washers and dryers to come to life you let it run down through your turbines and presto expecto lumos, you're back in the twenty-first century.
I realize that using water to store energy has been done for decades. That's not the point. The point of innovation thinking is not that you need to come up with a new doodad every single time (although that turbine-in-the-river thing really is pretty nifty). The point is that disciplined thinking and experimentation can and do lead to innovation that actually makes lives better.